Civil and Human Rights

Justices uphold Constitution’s promise for me


As a lesbian and a gay rights activist, the rulings were deeply important to me personally and professionally.


As a member of the Supreme Court Bar, I had the privilege of being in the courtroom Wednesday morning to hear the justices announce their long-awaited rulings in the two marriage equality cases. I got to the court very early to secure my seat; by the time the clock struck 10 and the justices took the bench, I could hardly breathe. As a lesbian, and a gay rights activist since I was 19, many decades ago, the forthcoming rulings were deeply important to me personally and professionally.


When Justice Anthony Kennedy began to read from his opinion in United States v. Windsor, and it became clear the court was striking down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act as an affront to the human dignity and equality of rights to which gay men and lesbians are entitled by our Constitution, I was exhilarated; history had been made. Celebration was postponed while we were treated to Justice Antonin Scalia reading his dissent.


Listening to Justice Scalia explain why he would have upheld the federal government’s regime of discrimination against lawfully married same-sex couples, I could only think how little he understands the Constitution’s promise of equality for all. How very sad to have such a cramped, erroneous view of our majestic national charter. Fortunately, we have five justices on the court who do get the Constitution “right” when it comes to equality for gay people.


The court’s second ruling Wednesday, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the challenge to California’s infamous Proposition 8, side-stepped whether the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex couples to marry. Nonetheless, it was still a huge victory for gay people because it preserved the trial court’s ruling holding Prop 8 to be unconstitutional; gay couples can once again marry in California.


In one fell swoop, Prop 8 and much of DOMA were confined to the dustbin of history. I had little time to process the enormity of this as we were quickly ushered out of the chamber, but as I emerged from the courthouse onto the steps overlooking the vast plaza, I found myself just behind the courageous plaintiffs in Perry as they acknowledged the cheers from the huge crowd below. I had time to snap a quick image on my cellphone before I was overcome with emotion and literally moved to tears. At that single moment, it all hit me. How very far we have come.


I have been at the court for every gay rights case since Bowers v. Hardwickin 1986, when the court gave its approval to state sodomy laws that made gay people criminals, that made me a criminal. Ten years ago Wednesday, in Lawrence v. Texas, the court overturned that despicable ruling.


With Wednesday’s decisions, the country has taken another giant step forward toward fulfilling the Constitution’s promise of equality for all. That realization made my walk down those steps a joyful one indeed.


Judith E. Schaeffer is vice president of the the Constitutional Accountability Center.

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